The champs played like the dynasty they well and truly are, but the chumps weren’t half bad either in an Eden Park Saturday night Super Rugby classic.
At the end of an exhilarating 80 minutes at Auckland’s showpiece rugby venue it was the Crusaders who had snuck the toughest of 24-22 victories over the Blues, but the way they had to work for it indicated that maybe, just maybe, this Leon MacDonald coaching era can produce something positive in the big city.
The Blues, dare we say it, were distinctly unlucky to see their dreadful losing streak against both the Crusaders particularly and Kiwi opposition in general extend. They have now lost nine straight against the back-to-back Super Rugby champs and 20 on the bounce against Kiwi opponents.
The visitors also benefited from two penalty tries on a night when they failed to land a single kick; and got a big call go their way late when a Manasa Mataele knock on was not ruled deliberate. It looked fair, but could easily have gone the other way.
Centre Braydon Ennor was outstanding for the Crusaders, outplaying his highly rated opposite with a destructive performance that included a trio of clean breaks down the middle. George Bridge, too, was excellent, as we’ve come to expect and Mataele, with his try double, showed what a finisher he is going to be in the starting role this year.
Up front the Saders were, well, the Saders. They were excellent in the set piece and driving stuff, led by a fine Scott Barrett display, winning two penalty tries that probably decided the contest. Their defence across the park was also mostly first-rate.
The Blues should not be too distressed by this opening defeat, even if it might still feel like Groundhog Day. Another stirring challenge; another narrow defeat against Kiwi opposition.
MacDonald’s men offered plenty. Akira Ioane was outstanding up front, as was young Tom Robionson and skipper Patrick Tuipulotu. It was also good to see Otere Black finally in the saddle, though Ma’a Nonu was mostly contained.
The Blues played plenty of rugby in the first 40 minutes but found themselves trudging into the sheds at the end of it trailing 12-3, and probably wondering just what they had to do to get more reward on the scoreboard.
The answer, of course, was plenty, against a side as well organised and disciplined as the back-to-back champions. MacDonald’s men had their chances, but they just could not unlock that watertight Crusaders defence through the first 40, coming closest on the stroke of halftime when Akira Ioane actually thundered over the line but was held up by a desperate Quinten Strange.
It summed up the first half really. As much as the Blues threw at the visitors – and it was all but the kitchen sink – they just could not crack the best defence in the competition. From that wonderful loose trio to the rock-solid midfield, the red and black wall held like an impenetrable fortress.
And, of course, the Cantabs rubbed salt into the wounds by striking themselves with stunning efficiency at the other end. Manasa Mataele had the first try of the match, and a 5-3 lead, just inside the opening quarter when Bryn Hall’s crosskick slipped through Michael Collins’ grasp and sat up perfectly for the wing.
The visitors’ lead increased to 12-3 eight minutes later when referee Nick Briant had no option but to award a penalty try when, from a lineout option, the thundering red and black maul was brought down on the line by a piece of Tom Robinson illegality. The flanker was despatched straight to the bin for good measure.
To their credit the undermanned Blues held out a similar raid soon after to survive Robinson’s absence unscathed, and very nearly had the final say on halftime, but for that scrambling Crusaders defence.
Clearly the right words were said in the home dressing-room at halftime as the Blues came out for the second half like men possessed, and were quickly right back in this contest. Akira Ioane crossed for a gem of a counter-attacking try less than two minutes in and replacement prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi doubled the tally soon after to put them in front, 17-12.
It was impressive stuff, too, Ioane put over with a fabulous breakout off Jordan Taufua’s spilled ball, with Collins and Tuipulotu the chief protagonists; and Tu’ungafasi the third wave of an Akira Ioane-Tuipulotu assault from a scrum.
So, what were the Crusaders made of?
Plenty. Mataele picked up his second, around the 54th minute, after a brilliant George Bridge break up the middle; then their second penalty try followed soon after, via a dominant scrum, to put them 24-17 to the good heading into the final quarter of an hour.
The Blues gave it a nudge, with Augustine Pulu’s try getting them within two, but Plummer’s nerve failed him as he whiffed the conversion and a subsequent penalty, and the Crusaders held on.
Final Score Blues 22 (3) Crusaders 24 (12)
Tries -A. Ioane, O.Tu’ungafasi, A.Pulu
Pen – O.Black
Con – O.Black, H. Plummer
Cards – T.Robinson (25th minute yellow)
Tries – M.Mataele 2, Penalty try 2
Con – Penalty try conversion 2
Cards – B.Funnell (66th min yellow)
Referee: Nick Briant
Assistant Ref 1: Federico Anselmi
Assistant Ref 2:Dan Waenga
TMO :Ben Skeen
15 Michael Collins, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Ma’a Nonu, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Otere Black, 9 Jonathan Ruru; 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (c), 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Matt Matich, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
1. Joe Moody, 2. Andrew Makalio ,3. Owen Franks , 4. Scott Barrett ,5. Quinten Strange 6. Jordan Taufua , 7. Matt Todd (C) , 8. Whetukamokamo Douglas , 9. Bryn Hall 23. Will Jordan*, 10. Richie Mo’unga , 11. George Bridge , 12. Ryan Crotty (VC) , 13. Braydon Ennor , 14. Manasa Mataele , 15. David Havili
Replacements : 16. Ben Funnell , 17. Tim Perry ,18. Michael Alaalatoa ,19. Luke Romano ,20. Tom Sanders ,21. Mitchell Drummond ,22. Mitchell Hunt